The Lumineers speak truth to the labyrinthine web that addiction weaves

The Lumineers
The Lumineers are, from left, Byron Isaacs, Jeremiah Fraites, Wesley Schultz, Lauren Jacobson and Stelth Ulvang. (Courtesy of Danny Clinch)

As The Lumineers, Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites didn’t set out to write an addiction record.

The Ties That Bind UsWhile both men have personal experiences with loved ones who have struggled with addiction and alcoholism, neither has battled the problem personally, Schultz told The Ties That Bind Us recently. They’re storytellers and have been since they first began playing together around New Jersey and New York City 15 years ago, and as their talent has deepened, so has their desire for authenticity.

Purposely writing an addiction record, Schultz said, would have felt awkward, like the pair were tourists dipping their toes in an unfamiliar ocean.

But a funny thing happened during the development of “III,” the Lumineers album released last September and debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. In drawing musical water from the spiritual wells of their own lives, they kept coming back to themes universal to addicts, alcoholics and their loved ones:

Loss. Grief. Helplessness. The sense that forces beyond the control of an individual have taken up residence in their lives like specters of permanent darkness, and in those moments, hope and light seem like distant memories.

“It’s weird to me doing it, because I’m not the addict, so it felt almost inappropriate saying something,” Schultz said from Asheville, North Carolina, where the band was preparing for a world tour that, aside from a chunk of April, will keep them on the road until the end of summer. “I think it was more, this is what I’m experiencing right now in my life, trying to support an addict and take care of someone in a lot of ways. My wife and I have been trying to support a member of her family, our family, for the last 10 years. We’ve put her into rehab a couple of times, and my wife gave her college tuition to this person so she could go to rehab, and she left early.

“We bought her a house and then had to evict her. She’s left rehab, been to jail, she’s been homeless, she’s been in and out of shelters. And the really hard part about that is that there’s no conclusion. There’s no closure. So when we were writing it, I felt very stuck on the subject, I guess you could say.”

The Lumineers: Traversing the learning curve

The Lumineers

Courtesy of Danny Clinch

And so began a journey, by two of the most high-profile songwriters in the catch-all genre of Americana, to tell the story of family. Addiction is the linchpin that connects three generations whose stories span the length of “III,” and given the visibility of The Lumineers — arguably, their success puts them on a level with Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers — it’s a landmark work that sheds a light on an often undiscussed issue that nevertheless affects millions of Americans.

Even he and Fraites, Schultz said, had to navigate something of a learning curve during the making of the album.

“We had a lot of misconceptions about addiction going into this,” he said. “People talk about being humbled by success, and I don’t really understand that concept. I think success builds up your ego, but I’ve never been more humbled than being around an addict and thinking, I was wrong — it’s not about willpower or some silver bullet solution, and the reason that I was wrong is that no one would ever do this voluntarily. It’s such a powerful force, and so we had to figure out what someone’s responsibility is as the addict, and what our responsibility is as their family.

“All of that was so hard to wrap my head around, and this album, these songs, became an outlet, a meditation, on that. It’s not a prescription (for a solution); it’s a description. It’s, ‘This is what’s been happening,’ and just in sharing that, a lot of people are coming back to us with an energy and saying, ‘This has happened to me, too.’ I’ve heard that over and over, and there’s just an astonishing number of people touched by addiction, and an astonishing number of people who love someone dealing with it, or they themselves are dealing with it.

“It’s been a shocking thing to learn how wide that web is and how far it stretches, and how so many people are going along with this charade like it’s not happening,” he added.

For The Lumineers, acknowledging its existence was just the first step in the creation of “III.” They’ve always been methodical and thoughtful songwriters — despite the lighthearted singalong smash hit single, “Ho Hey,” that introduced them to the world (and it was a mighty introduction: the song spent 14 weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard 100, and 14 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Rock Songs chart) in 2012, they’ve always mined the darker recesses of the human heart for complex emotional material. That resonance pushed their 2012 self-titled debut to No. 2 and 2016’s “Cleopatra” to No. 1, and these days they’re headlining arena shows around the world.

In a way, Schultz said, getting into the heart of the addiction story that drives the three main characters on “III” — Gloria; her son, Jimmy; and Jimmy’s son, Junior — was an exercise in knowledge as much as it was songwriting.

“I remember that someone said to me one time, ‘People don’t drink during the holidays because of being sad. They drink because they’re feeling a lot,’ and if you look at it, joy is most vulnerable feeling in the world,” he said. “I feel like addicts, and even some people who don’t consider themselves to be, are all wired in this weird way, and they’re scared of being vulnerable. For me, I think part of the person I’m singing about a lot, part of their struggle is that there’s a lot of self-loathing and a lot of shame for some reason, and they don’t feel worthy of feeling joy.

“The minute that enters their heart or their world, they want to numb it and make it go away, because it makes them very uncomfortable. As an outsider, that’s important, because that helps us to realize it’s not a villain you’re dealing with — it’s a person who feels broken.”

A fictional family takes shape

The Lumineers

Courtesy of Danny Clinch

The roots of “III” snake their way back to 2007, when Schultz first conceived of a three-part song cycle that were connected but separate. “Love, Loss and Crimes” was the working title, but unexpected success via “Ho Hey” put it on the backburner, until it was time to work on a new album. The experiences Schultz and his wife were going through kept coming back to the surface during the writing process, and the pair began to focus on the resulting devastation that addiction visits upon loved ones — including the death of Fraites’ brother, Josh, who died of a drug overdose at the age of 19. Their personal experiences as loved ones of individuals who have struggled with addiction became a focus that carried through the album’s creation, and the resulting videos for each song that make up a singular film, all directed by “Super Dark Times” veteran Kevin Phillips.

“He and I talked in the beginning, and as I was describe the situation my wife and I were in, one of the things he was really adamant about was that the reason this was such a big deal is because of the love of family,” Schultz said. “We wanted people to care about Gloria or Jimmy, and by the end of it, you’re actually rooting for him even as you realize where he’s falling short and working against himself. We wanted to humanize the situation.

“Take (the song) ‘Gloria,’ for example — you’re oscillating between two perspectives: the guitar (part), where the child is saying something to the mother, and then the piano takes over when she says, ‘Get me back on my own two feet.’ It’s like this person is saying, ‘Don’t underestimate me. I have hope. I have dignity.’ Part of the exercise for this was trying to find that perspective on the other side of it, to find empathy for the addict, even though that addict has personally hurt you. It’s the love that is driving you insane.”

Working with Simone Felice, formerly of the Felice Brothers, Schultz and Fraites built the record off of “Jimmy Sparks,” a haunting, vivid narrative of the dysfunctional dynamic between Jimmy and his son, Junior. Life for Jimmy, and by extension his mother and his son, is a self-fulfilling prophecy of damage and heartbreak — the former visited upon them by the previous generation, the latter the legacy they leave behind, no matter how much they push back against fate.

Despite the darkness, however, Schultz is emphatic that the record is not a pessimistic one: It’s simply a glimpse at the ruination of one family that serves as an example for so many real ones throughout America.

“There isn’t a resolution; there isn’t a happy ending, because there’s not a final thing,” Schultz said. “Maybe that would be death, I don’t know. But in the meantime, you have to live with it, because that’s part of life. It’s not like you get to stop thinking about it. But I think it’s important to remember something a guy said to me when I was telling him about how, during the recording, I felt like I was banging my head against the wall and feeling really defeated.

“I was trying to be hopeful, but when he heard me talking about it, he said, ‘You need to have some compassion for yourself.’ And at first, I thought that was crazy — like, that’s not going to happen! But we could all use some of that, I think.”

The Lumineers: Turning the 'III' narrative into a movie

The Lumineers

The cast of the short film that makes up "III."

There was, Schultz admits, some trepidation on the band’s part about the visceral nature of the album’s content. Would fans, they wondered, reject it as too visceral? Too real? Too painful? The reaction instead, they found, has been exactly the opposite.

“It’s funny, because we thought there would be a lot of people turned off by it who felt like they couldn’t relate to it,” he said. “Instead, we’ve found it was way more universal. And for me, (the videos) felt like it was a little bit of resistance against the taboo nature of the subject. I just felt a little bit of animosity about how people could be offended by someone just saying the truth, and I wanted to show it in a more unflinching way.

“For the fans who listen to our music, whose first dance at their wedding was to one of our songs, that’s what music is all about. It’s what art is all about. But it doesn’t mean this isn’t also just as truthful. It’s about bringing emotion out in people and making people feel alive, and while this may not be positive emotion, it’s emotion nonetheless.”

The genius of “III” is how the song cycle and their accompanying videos complement one another, and much of that falls onto the shoulders of the actors who portray the three main family members. Short film veteran Anna Cordell stars as Gloria, whose waifish vulnerability sets the heartbreaking tone for the first chapter; Charlie Tahan of the acclaimed Netflix series “Ozark” plays the role of Junior, whose personal heartbreak is magnified by the dysfunctional relationship with his father; and “Terminator: Rise of the Machines” and “In the Bedroom” actor Nick Stahl anchors the entire narrative as Jimmy, a man who lives life shrouded in a fog of familial and personal darkness.

“We finished the record, and we looked at this idea of diving it into three chapters: These three songs seemed like they could be about Gloria, these three could be about Jimmy, and for the middle section, we came up with this character of Junior,” Schultz said. “I created this skeleton, this outline of a story arc and these characters, and made storyboards with a friend of mine who does that. Kevin’s vision was right in line with the aesthetic of what I was imagining for these videos. He has this ability to shoot these shots that are stark and painful but beautiful.

“And he had an eye for casting people who felt real, who didn’t seem like actors, because this was a unique thing: They were basically going to be Charlie Chaplin the whole time with no dialogue, because the music is the dialogue. It was kind of a strange task, but we handed these storyboards over to him, and he sat down with a couple of his writer friends and fleshed them out with the details for the videos. He’s created this beautiful visual arc to go along with the album, and we consulted with him along the way.”

The end result is a moving piece of cinema that speaks to the soul every bit as much as the songs on “III” do. They’re gorgeous and tragic and bleak and emotional — a perfect encapsulation of the nature of addiction, and the songs and videos combined have clearly touched fans in a way that perhaps no other Lumineers material has up to now.

Fostering a dialogue through music

Courtesy of Danny Clinch

“(The record) has not been out a tremendous amount of time, but we’ve had so many people come up to us in the most unexpected moments to talk about it,” Schultz said. “It could be a meet-and-greet, where a fan is going to come take a photo with you, which is normally just a short exchange, but that person ends up baring their soul. I remember one time we were doing this interview with a guy who told me he had been addicted to meth, and how he and his wife had their children taken away, and how at first they didn’t know if they would get them back.

“They did, but then he said to me, ‘No one on this whole set where we’re filming knows this about me.’ Now, I know it’s upsetting to have your children taken away, but the most upsetting thing to me was that he couldn’t tell people he was around and spent the most time with. Addicts are pressured to hide it in our society, or else they put their careers, their social values, at risk. It changes how people trust you, how they perceive you, and it’s tragic to me how they have to roll the dice when they share something that’s truthful.”

If nothing else, those little moments when Schultz and Fraites serve as proxy priests, listening to the confessions and secrets of fans who pull them aside or write to them on social media, is a great honor, he added. Being on the receiving end of those conversations is always humbling, he added, and that perhaps is his greatest hope about “III”: that it encourages compassion for those who suffer, and encourages those who suffer to reach out.

“If more people (talked about) it, it would be more normalized and be more acknowledged, and those who are struggling wouldn’t have this added element of a secret mixed in with the burden of addiction and the burden of trying to stay sober,” he said.

Separating his role as a soothsayer from that of someone affected by addiction has been arduous at times, but in some ways, it’s also been enlightening. Frustration and anger and despair have given way to acceptance — not tough love so much as loving their addicted family member from a distance in order to rise above the darker tendrils of their relationship.

“My wife’s family member, we saw her for the first time in a couple of years a few days ago, and as far as we know, she’s living in and out of shelters,” he said. “So that means sometimes homeless, sometimes sleeping in the warmth of a shelter. To be honest, I’m not really sure what that all means. It seems like for this person, it’s more important for her to not have anyone telling her what she needs to do so that she can do what she wants to do. She can drink when she wants to drink, and her family wasn’t really willing to let her do that if she stayed with them. For her, it seems like the life she wants right now.”

In days gone by, Schultz may have found such a decision unfathomable, but the process of birthing “III” has given him a change of perspective. There’s still a vast divide that separates addicts and alcoholics from “normal” individuals like Schultz and Fraites, but the art they’ve created has taken them to the edge of that precipice, so that even if they can’t get to the other side, they can at least see the lay of the land there.

“I see now that they’re risking life and limb for this thing that’s hurting them, and even if they might completely understand that it’s the wrong thing to do, they’re almost magnetically pulled in that direction,” he said. “There’s no preachy message about this album or any of the videos, but I think the caveat is that there’s some conversation around it. Maybe someone might see it or watch it with a teenager or a sibling or a parent, and it might at least open some dialogue or create some openness around it.

“I think a good note to leave this conversation on is that it’s the love of that person that makes this so hard. Ironically, people are going through something like this, and there’s a lot of self-loathing and feelings of unworthiness, and for the addict, that love makes them feel worse — but it’s what bonds families together. You’re a tribe, a family, a unit, and there’s so much love and loyalty there. Those roots run deep, and you can’t just get rid of us.”

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